What we're (finally) reading: Time for classics and epics

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"Moby Dick." "Middlemarch." "Ulysses." "Infinite Jest." "Crime and Punishment."

For many, such books have been read grudgingly, because there was a grade riding on it, and completion of the assignment was followed by an oath to never touch them again.

Others missed out on such required reading, and maybe tackled one of these epics and didn't get far — or never had time to try.

You know the complaints: They're too long. They're ponderous. They're largely written by the "Great White Males" of the literary canon, men whose work was lavished with attention from critics and academics while women writers and writers of color were marginalized or ignored.

But those mighty whales are still out there on the horizon. And here we are, stuck at home.

For those with a love of books — or no desire to binge Netflix, this is a golden opportunity to sample the classics, try a friend's recommendation, or to revisit a book you couldn't plow through the first time.

We have reached out to the folks at Northshire Bookstore with that simple question: Which book? Here's what they came up with.

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt.

Books we'd recommend

"Hild" by Nicola Griffith

"Hild' is a rich and layered seventh-century epic that focuses on the oft-overlooked story of female ambition. It's titular character is a razor-sharp young mystic whose clever eyes see what others miss. With careful clarity, Griffith builds a brutal but beautiful world that demands your full attention from cover to cover.

— Claire Bennet

"Handling Sin" by Michael Malone

One of my favorite novels. Firstly, it's laugh-aloud funny. Secondly, it's heartwarming and stirring, full of the big themes: quests, journeys, strained-family relationships. It was the "test book" for my wife to see if she'd work out. The first chapter opens at a Chinese restaurant where a saboteur has placed joke fortunes in fortune cookies like: "You've got the clap," "Your wife is having an affair with your best friend," and "Jesus is a bag lady; he only saves trash." Our hero gets: `Your life will go completely to pieces by the end of the week," and it does by the end of the day/chapter.

— Dafydd Wood

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"Journey to the End of Night" by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

For my money, this is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. And, oh, is it dark. The protagonist sees horror after horror from the trenches of World War I to colonial exploitation in the rubber trade. In America, he becomes a flea-counter on immigrants, and eventually returns to Paris to become a doctor to the most miserably disenfranchised. Funny and unspeakably bleak.

— Dafydd Wood

"Ulysses" by James Joyce

Funny, challenging, sexy, infuriating. Sure, it's a beast, and, of course, it's pretentious. It's also brilliant and delightful. Seen today, it's even life-affirming. If you can get over the hump of "Proteus," the third chapter, Leopold Bloom is an earthy breath of fresh air. Not to mention Molly!

— Dafydd Wood

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"In Search of Lost Time," by Marcel Proust

The madeleines and tea and memory are justly famous and searingly beautiful, but that is only the beginning. Proust carefully crafts and introduces all of the moving pieces of this vast novel (full disclosure, I've only read three of the volumes) — from all of the characters, to all of the themes, to even all of the bedrooms in the introductory section, Combray (which has the distinction of being the only town I know to rename itself based on a novel.) It's about the supreme importance of art — turning all one's disappointment and sadness in life into the raw material of art. Read it slowly and think about how, in addition to time and memory, it's all about making art.

— Dafydd Wood

"Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry

One of my all-time favorite novels! An epic western in every sense of the word, it is so good that you will be reluctant to bid the vibrant characters goodbye as you near the conclusion. It is a little like losing good friends.

—Alden Graves

"The Executioner's Song" by Norman Mailer

This is the celebrated author's tough-as-nails chronicle of a convicted killer's fight to die. It is based on the true-life story of Gary Gillmore, who murdered two men during a robbery and fought the justice system to have his death sentence carried out immediately.

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— Alden Graves

"Barkskins" by Annie Proulx

The centuries-spanning story of a single family, working in various aspects of the timber industry, is worthy of being regarded as an example of towering American fiction. Reading it is a little like taking a ride down a raging river in the wilderness, but the author's abiding concern for the sanctity of nature is evident on every page.

— Alden Graves

Books we've always wanted to read

"The Brothers Karamozov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

During a Russian Literature binge in my twenties, I read "Crime & Punishment" and loved it, after that I vowed to get back to "The Brothers Karamozov," hoping it would be my companion during a trip through Europe on the Eurorail. Still hoping for this to become a reality.

Jessica Wood

"Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust

I was a huge Truman Capote fan just out of college, after reading everything he wrote I picked up a biography of him and learned that he was a huge fan of this epic literary work. In 1968, while staying in Palm Springs, Truman Capote tells The Times, "I am about to start the Proust Plunge, which I do about every five years. You take a big breath and go under for about six weeks with him."

— Jessica Wood

"Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace

I keep meaning to finish "Infinite Jest." My first attempt was woefully misguided: I took it out of the library and needed to return it before I broke the hundred page mark. On my second attempt, I read a normal-length-novel's worth (around 300 pages or so) and, only meaning to get a fresh breath of air, I put it down in order to immerse myself in another (shorter) novel. But "Infinite Jest" was thoughtful and complex and wonderfully entertaining. I will read it eventually, in its entirety. Someday. I swear.

— Joe Michon-Huneau


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